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A date with The Color Purple

You would like to think the success of a first date is all about chemistry, connection, good conversation, but sometimes, where you are and what you’re doing can play a key role in whether things go well or not. As a bookworm, I always try to find creative ways of impressing that special woman with how books are a sexy part of my life.

Literary Forum by Bookworm

I had noticed passing The New York Times head office in Times Square a billboard announcing an event with Alice Walker, songstresses Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo and director John Doyle. The event promised an exciting conversation with musical performances from the new Broadway production of The Color Purple. I desperately wanted this to be my date night, but I was so broke that I didn’t think I would afford the tickets, but ladyluck smiled at me a few days before the show. The tickets were booked and a dinner planned afterwards. But on the day of the show, standing outside the venue, my date cancelled. She had a family emergency.

Like a child whose candy had been nicked, I was so heartbroken and disappointed. The evening rush crowd did not care about my misery as they brushed against me. The roses in my hands looked lonely and sad too. They ended up in a trash can. As the battle inside me raged, I decided to walk into the John L Tishman Auditorium at The New School bordering Greenwich Village and Union Square in downtown New York. The seat next to me remained empty throughout the show, just in case, my Cinderella would turn up.

A child’s memory is short and forgiving. In no time, I was star- struck, with the three gifted black women waltzing on the stage. Alice Walker was on my course list as an English literature undergraduate at Midlands State University. We “read” her seminal text, The Color Purple, for our gender politics class. All I wanted to tell her was that whenever she visits Zimbabwe, I will happily host her at Color Purple Niteclub in Southerton, as that would be my perfect tribute to her legend.

In our class of 42, there was only one student who had a copy of The Color Purple. Rumbi was not the most generous giver. You had to be in her inner circle to be able to read her books. The university library had no copies. This was in the days before relatively cheap broadband. Like many, I wrote the final examinations without reading the text. Those who had read the book summarised for the rest of us the story. And they were kind enough to give us spelling names for the important characters and places in the book. And we crammed it all in. It was many years before I would own my own copy of The Color Purple.

I first watched the movie before reading the book only because in this part of the world, it is easier to get the movie than the actual text. The Hollywood flick produced in 1985 had a star cast led by Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Dany Glover and directed by Steven Spielberg. I saw many reruns of it on ZTV when it was still a station of choice for the majority of Zimbabweans. But watching a film adaptation is not the same as reading the book. A film is someone’s interpretation of the book. Reading the book should always come before the film.

The conversation was as absorbing as it was informative. Walker told the packed auditorium that she had agreed to do the first film adaptation of The Color Purple as a dedication to her mother. She wanted the film to be screened in a small town in Georgia “that nobody had ever heard of” where she spent her childhood so that her mother and those among whom she grew up could see their own history in motion.

As she said this, my mind strayed to Zimbabwe where our literary culture tends to be zoned in specific areas considered to be artsy or trendy in Harare. Our book launches, “public” readings and literary events must be taken to the people in Chitungwiza, Highfield or Mbare. For as long as these people are not exposed to these events, their relationship with books will always be mechanical or narrowly associated with the school experience.

Walker is a larger-than-life personality in America. She is not just known for her own literary work, but also for rescuing another African American female stalwart, Zora Neale Hurston, from disappearing into obscurity by facilitating the publication of her works, one of which is, Their Eyes were Watching God.

The Color Purple is partly autobiographical, inspired by the stories she grew up listening to. She describes the book “as a gift from my ancestors”. Asked why her book has endured the test of time and become a modern classic, Walker emphasied on “truth and honesty” as the hallmarks of timeless works.

“This culture is sick and the only way to heal it is to have art that is ruthlessly honest and as deeply human as it can be.”

Zimbabwe needs great literature to save it, as it did during the liberation struggle with comrades such as Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera and Wilson Katiyo, among others.

Before the event was over, Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Evro’s electric performances were just heaven. Their singing would have been a perfect soundtrack to my perfect date.

Feedback: bhukuworm@gmail.com

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